What Is a Hostile Work Environment?

Mary Barrett
June 10, 2022

The federal government defines a hostile work environment as a workplace in which an employee feels threatened or harassed by the words and actions of a coworker or manager.

This can include mental, physical, or sexual intimidation. It also includes the denial of promotions from supervisors and/or unnecessary or especially severe discipline.

Definition of a Hostile Work Environment

A hostile work environment in the federal workplace can be even more harmful because of the tax dollars wasted on the loss of productivity that often results from a hostile work environment.

However, federal employees do have the option to follow legal avenues within the agency that are not specific to federal employees.

Workplace bullying is on the rise and can certainly create a hostile work environment. It can take the form of malicious gossip or insults, sexual harassment, or offensive comments.

While many kinds of unwanted action can generate a hostile work environment, in general, it is when someone in a workplace is involved in biased harassment against one or more employees.

The harassing person can be a supervisor, coworker, independent contractor or even a client.

Federal Workplace Harassment

Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).

Under federal law, harassment by federal employees of other federal employees based on the following is prohibited:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National Origin
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Gender Identity
  • Sexual Orientation
  • Pregnancy
  • Parental Status
  • Genetic Information
  • Age
  • Disability

Harassment by anyone in the workplace, even contractors, is not permitted by the federal government.

Workplace harassment can take two forms:

Harassment can be "quid pro quo,” which happens when employment decisions or treatment are based on submission to or rejection of unwelcome (typically sexual) conduct.

In terms of sexual harassment, it means that someone offers something work-related in exchange for a sexual favor.

Workplace harassment can also look like aggressive behavior based on one or more of the protected groups above that is so severe or persistent that it causes a hostile work environment.

It could also be if it leads to unfortunate employment decisions; for example, being fired or demoted.

However, there are some unpleasant instances that can happen at work that would not be considered harassment, such as irritations or offhand comments.

For example, if your supervisor doesn’t take your ideas to heart or if you have a coworker who slams doors, this would not necessarily be considered a hostile work environment.

Rather, illegal harassment would be so severe or persistent that it changes the terms of employment or hinders an employee’s ability to perform their work effectively.

What to Do About a Hostile Work Environment

First, you should try telling the person harassing you that their behavior is unwelcome and must stop. However, you should also tell your manager about the harassment when it begins in order to keep it from getting any worse.

When you speak with your harasser, explain how their behavior has affected your ability to perform your job and give specific examples.

Point out how their behavior has violated employment laws. This will give your argument legal backing and professionalism.

Federal employees have an advantage when it comes to addressing a hostile work environment as they have explicit paths within their agency that they are able to follow.

If speaking directly with the harassing coworker doesn’t help, you should report the problem to your supervisor. However, if your harasser is a manager, you should speak to HR or upper management about the problem.

When you report the problems you are having, present a copy of the documentation you have kept.

Also keep a record of the conversation you have with HR or upper management as evidence in case you need to file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

When keeping records, be sure to give a description of every incident including the time, date, location, and names of each person involved. If you don’t keep a detailed record, you’ll have a hard time proving your case to your higher-ups, HR, and/or the EEOC.

If complaining to a manager or HR doesn’t help, you should contact an EEO counselor. You cannot file a formal complaint until you do this.

You have 45 days from the date the most recent incident occurred to contact an EEO counselor.

You can find the contact information for your agency’s EEO office posted in your workplace, as all federal workplaces are required to have it in plain view or provide it upon request.

When you speak to the EEO counselor, give them your account of the hostile work environment. Next, they will set up mediation with you and the harasser to talk about the problem and try to come to a resolution.

What happens next can depend on the severity of the behavior. The EEO counselor might recommend one or more of the following to the agency:

  • move someone to a different area
  • assign you or the harasser new duties
  • issue an official reprimand
  • fire the person responsible for the hostile work environment

If the mediation doesn’t go the way you hoped it would, you can file a formal EEO complaint with your agency.

The agency will then launch an investigation into your claims and issue a decision within 180 days.

If you disagree with their decision, you can then ask for an appeal hearing with an EEOC Administrative Judge or you can file a federal lawsuit.

How to Fix a Hostile Work Environment

If you find yourself being retaliated against for filing a complaint or if you decide to take the case to federal court, you will almost certainly want to hire a good lawyer that is well-versed in federal employment law.  A good attorney can also advise you through the counseling process.

The highly experienced federal employee attorneys at Melville Johnson, P.C. have been helping federal employees win their EEO cases for over 35 years.

Give us a call or fill out the form below to learn how we can help you alleviate the pain of a hostile work environment today.

This blog and web site published by Melville Johnson, P.C. should not be used as a substitute for seeking competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney. Readers of this information should not act upon any information contained on this blog or website without seeking professional counsel.
Contact us today
If you're a federal employee and feel you've been the victim of unlawful discrimination involving MSPB claims or EEO claims, our experienced federal employment attorneys stand ready to fight on your behalf. Give us a call today at (404) 724-0000 or fill out the form below and we'll be sure to follow up in a timely manner.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
what our clients are saying
“I really appreciate how much Melville Johnson cared about my case. From the very beginning of the process, their federal employee attorneys were friendly and very informative. We won the case, and they were even helpful afterwards, answering any questions or concerns. Thank you Melville Johnson, and I will definitely pass your good work along to others in need.”
- Jim R.
“Despite the complexity of my situation, Melville Johnson took on my claim and immediately put me at ease with a clear demonstration of their expertise with EEO law. From the very start, the firm’s team members have been amazing to work with—hardworking, honest and extremely trustworthy. I would recommend them to anyone who needed this type of legal assistance!”
- Bridget B.
“As a person with a disability working for the federal government, I knew I needed to get the right legal professional assistance for my case. And while the process could have been tedious and overwhelming for a layperson without much legal knowledge, Melville Johnson alleviated all the potential stress involved by taking the guesswork out of my hands. With their help, I received disability approval in record time! I want to thank you for the superior work your firm performed. From my very first contact, your Client Intake Manager took the time to answer all of my initial questions and provide detailed information at every turn. And your attorneys showed nothing but professionalism and kindness throughout the process.”
- Sandra B.
“The consummate professionals at Melville Johnson work closely with you to ensure your rights are being protected. As a current federal employee, I found myself in a situation where the job I was asked to do didn’t match the position description for which I was hired nor the compensation I deserved. With the firm’s help, I was able to obtain back pay and transfer into a position that matched the job I was performing."
- L.M.